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Review: The Red Palace by June Hur

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️(4)

The Red Palace takes place in 1758 during Korea's Joseon Dynasty. Baek-hyeon is an 18-year-old illegitimate daughter living in the capitol city. Due to her gender, her upper-class father refused to acknowledge her paternity, and Hyeon has spent her life thus far trying to earn a worthy life and prove herself, even to the mother who resents her for being born a girl.


After years of grueling studies and work, Hyeon has been selected as a prestigious palace nurse. On the night that four women are murdered in town, Hyeon is called into the prince's rooms. What she discovers opens her eyes to the lies and treachery of life in the palace. As authorities search for someone to blame for the murders, Hyeon's mentor and friend is dragged away and beaten for answers she refuses to give.


Desperate to prove her mentor's innocence, Hyeon begins searching for something no one else seems interested in: the truth. Her hunt brings her onto the same path as a young police inspector, and they come together to uncover the evidence and save the nurses who are an after-thought to the officers leading the investigation.


As Hyeon and the inspector get closer to discovering the motives of the killer, they grow closer in other ways. While their connection is forged by their drive to solve the case, it's tested by the class system in their society and the very real physical danger that threatens their lives.


The Red Palace overarchingly settles on the theme of class and the hierarchy that ruled Joseon. In every aspect of Hyeon's life, her station defines who she can be and what she can do. Unacknowledged formally by her father, the man still controls her and her mother, but refuses to give Hyeon the recognition she needs to be accepted in society.


Her mother blames Hyeon for pushing her father away, and Hyeon grows up knowing that she would've been given his name had she been a boy. Under this weight and disappointment, Hyeon strives for success and approval, but she can't quite throw off the binds of her family. Her father intervenes in her life in many ways, disregarding Hyeon as a total disappointment, and her mother accepts the meager life that her father provides, desperate for him.


The woman who took her in and taught Hyeon to be a nurse is the only one who's ever shown Hyeon affection and understood Hyeon's intelligence and promise. So, when her mentor is dragged away as a suspect to the murder of the nurses under her care, Hyeon knows it can't be true.


As Hyeon delves into the investigation, she's often thwarted by her social status, but she's unafraid to step outside of what others deem acceptable if it means saving her mentor and the other nurses she's known since childhood. The lives of the nurses are all connected, and there's a bond and community between them that Hyeon is desperate to maintain. She feels protective and grateful for the opportunities that nursing has provided her.


When Hyeon first stumbles into the police inspector, he's dressed as a servant. This sets the tone for them; Believing he's equal with her in society, Hyeon is bold and witty, demanding answers, sharing knowledge. When he reveals who he really is, he doesn't want that to change, and he pushes away the social customs that would make Hyeon bow to him. He understands her worth, and he asks her to join him in the investigation.


But even as Hyeon and the young police inspector forge a bond sparked by their shared desire for truth, the truth of her social standing hasn't changed. Even though the inspector treats her like an equal, others are quick to remind her that she will never be more than she is. Hyeon's driven to solve the murders, but she knows her proximity to the young inspector will end as soon as the case is closed.


The relationship between them is a slow burn, but it has to be. In a society that can't accept the two of them together, Hyeon is not allowed to imagine anything different. As her feelings start to change -- spurred on by the gentleness of a man who treats her like an equal and recognizes that her intelligence provides insight that his can't -- she refuses what she feels, refuses the inclination that he might feel the same. She can never become his wife, and she refuses to become a mistress like her mother who's desperate for a man who will never love only her.


The Red Palace is beautifully written to the point where the reading of it fades into the background. The setting is so well-cultivated and complete that it's effortless to visualize. The strong backdrop of Joseon Korea grounds the plot, making the emotion of this story so much more meaningful than it would be outside of this time and place.

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